❝ Art saved my life! ❞
— Edwin Gil
Broken after watching his life partner in Colombia be murdered and two attempts made on his own life, visual artist Edwin Gil landed in Charlotte, N.C., looking for purpose and a focus which he eventually found in something else broken: glass.
Gil, now an internationally renowned artist, is a firm believer in the power of art to transform and has dedicated himself to the idea of social art.
“Art is an amazing tool,” Gil said in a recent interview. “It causes communities to talk about difficult topics, such as war with peace.”
Gil’s most recent project, Faces of Diversity, focuses on working with different communities, holding workshops and getting participants to dip their thumbs in paint and make a thumbprint. He then takes the dozens, or in some cases hundreds, of thumbprints and creates a large piece of artwork using some of the same techniques as creating a mosaic with the focus being a face of someone who represents the diversity of that community.
One such work can be found at Luna’s Living Kitchen in South End, where he asked customers to make their thumbprints, then created a green and red 8 foot by 12 foot artwork of restaurant owner Juliana Luna by painting on recycled glass and incorporating the thumbprints as well, using a mosaic style.
“Everyone has different shapes. But all are part of the same community. It doesn’t [ask] what is your accent, what color is your hair, your ethnicity or where you are from,” Gil said. “One of the most amazing things in the world is our diversity. We may have different status, but we are just that, just different.”
He has created several works in the area, including several at Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools, a face of diversity begun at the Charlotte Pride Festival in 2014 and his first work, a self-portrait. The latter two are currently on display in the Charlotte Pride office at 1900 The Plaza.
Gil envisions 111 different works as part of his Faces of Diversity project that would be created around the world, but more important to him is the impact that his life story and his artwork can make on society. He is currently working with the University of Texas-Houston on projects in a very poor community in South Houston known as LaMark, where he holds a conference and then works intensively for a week with the students, completing a piece of artwork.
“There are a lot of problems in LaMark,” he said. “There are a lot of kids who don’t finish high school. They hear my story and identify with me when I speak about being poor, how I came to the U.S., about my sexuality. Our goal is to help them to finish high school.”
Gil’s first foray into the LaMark area was two years ago and the university and Gil were both astonished when 25 percent more students decided to stay in school. Thanks to that result, Gil is returning this fall to do the project in other schools in south Texas.
Gil humbly noted that he was proud to have had a part in that, but observed that it is the power of art and his life story that have had an impact.
The story that Gil shares is remarkable in and of itself. A native of Itagui, Colombia, Gil never intended to become an artist, though he always loved art and had aunts and uncles who painted. His father, however, was an alcoholic and Gil was abused from an early age. At age four he started working, helping to deliver lunches and picking up cardboard. As the oldest of six children, he had to help provide for the family. After the years of abuse, Gil finally ended up homeless at age 15 and was raped several times.
“Another family took me from the streets,” he said, “and helped me to finish high school. When I talk with the students, they identify with my story. They don’t see me as a 45-year-old man…I tell them that they can keep pushing. You can build your life. Life is different pieces. Take them together and create a masterpiece.”
Gil then met the man in Medellin who would become his life partner and moved in with him. They lived together for 10 years, during which time he finished a college degree in business and a master’s in psychology. But then came the most challenging time of his life.
“FARC guerrillas (a rebel group in Colombia) tried to kidnap my partner and me,” Gil said. “My partner used to have a lot of money, but instead of giving in, he fought them. As I watched, they shot him twice in the head.”
Things then got even worse. His partner’s family tried to push him out of the country because they knew that they would have to split the partner’s money with Gil. The pressure grew until one day he was coming out of the university and he was abducted on the street while driving his car.
“I thought they were going to kill me,” Gil said. “They kept telling me how they were going to kill me. We are going to shoot your balls, they said.”
The abductors, whom Gil believes were hired by his late partner’s family, kept Gil tied up in the trunk of a taxi from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. “I prayed and I asked God what can I do? Give me another opportunity,” he said.
He was let go, but it was the most painful and difficult time of his life. He planned to go to Australia and landed in Miami, Fla., but the friend who was supposed to pick him up never arrived. He tried to get a job and apply for asylum there, but without success. He finally got in contact with a cousin who was working in Charlotte and came to North Carolina.
Broken, penniless and unable to speak English, Gil was able to land a job at the Coffey and Thompson art gallery, which was then in Uptown Charlotte. He learned to frame pictures and to restore paintings and eventually had the opportunity to restore a painting from the old Sears store Uptown that had been donated to South Mecklenburg High School. He researched the author Eugene Montgomery and worked carefully to restore the painting, and in the process was interviewed by The Charlotte Observer.
That opened the door for Gil to have his first show with 100 paintings. It also allowed him to get a grant and to start working with the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Public Library to develop the first Hispanic cultural week in Charlotte, spotlighting artists from different Latin American countries beyond the traditional focus, which had been just on Mexico. Those events turned into the annual events Con A de Arte and Arte Si.
Gil’s passion for art then led him to create the “Flag of Hope,” a work done with handprints across the state of North Carolina and which is now in Imaginon downtown. Another work was done at Statesville High School.
“All of my projects incorporate community, whether it is a handprint, a thumbprint or something else,” he said. “…Especially for kids with the arts, they start understanding things they can’t normally understand.”
Gil also created a work for his home country called “Nuestro Bandera, Nuestro Pais, Nuestro Hogar,” [Our Flag, Our Country, Our Home] which incorporated handprints on a canvas print that was given to then Colombian President Alvaro Uribe.
But even though the Colombian artist was happy with the opportunities to produce social art, he had not found his own special way of doing art. That came through a serendipitous event.
One day, Gil went over to the house of Coffey and Thompson owner Paul Thompson, the man who had offered Gil his first job in Charlotte. Thompson had offered to give him a door for his house, but Gil found something else. In a shed, he found a stockpile of old glass taken from the old gallery and from other old buildings which were torn down for the Bank of America building. Thompson’s dream had been to build a wall of glass but he had never done it.
Gil felt an immediate connection to the glass. “The glass was talking to me,” he said.
A little later that summer he was in an art workshop at Lincoln Center. “The workshop leader Barbara Ellmann posed the question ‘What type of art speaks to me’?” Gil said.
That got him thinking about the glass again. He was used to working with glass, was not afraid of being cut by it and realized he had found his style.
“An artist always find the medium that talks to him,” he recalled Ellmann saying. “Why don’t you do something out of glass?”
That was five years ago and doing small projects, and then his self-portrait, he realized that blue was his color and came up with the idea of using paint on glass.
“It is the same technique as using mosaics, using grout,” he explained.
He immediately saw the symbolism of the broken glass and how people, including immigrants like himself, so often feel broken, but how piecing it together creates integration.
Gil saw this as a way to promote his passion, which is social art. He has been excited to see the opportunities that are arising in Texas and how it is going worldwide. He has been invited to Milan, Italy because they are having a big problem dealing with immigrants. The mayor believed that art could be a way to help bridge the gap.
Even though Gil’s vision is worldwide, he has a passion for the Queen City and for that reason is concerned about the impact of HB2.
“Charlotte is an amazing community,” he said. “It is a bubble in the state. Everyone around here is very gay supportive. But when I travel in the rest of the United States, they ask me what is going on in North Carolina?”
When he traveled around the state with the North Carolina “Flag of Diversity,” he said he didn’t run into this kind of problem. “I didn’t feel rejected for my sexuality or ethnicity,” he said.
Gil is especially saddened by the impact HB2 is having on young people.
“What the government is doing is crazy,” he said. “Kids will be our future governors or future mayors. I have hope for changes from the way things are now…This has affected me a lot. I’m openly gay and am accepted for who I am. But I see how the behavior of kids has changed in schools. Kids feel empowered to bring this [hatred] to school.”
“This is not just about transgenders,” Gil continued. “Kids are making comments about people’s sexuality. It our responsibility to control that behavior.”
In light of what has happened, he is looking for a place in Charlotte to do an outside work to show a transgender as part of his “Faces of Diversity” project.
“Through the faces of people all around, one can become isolated from the community,” he said. “We need to show all faces and I want to find a place to be transgender focused.”
Even though Gil has found a niche and a focus, he still continues to grow. Several years ago he explained that he was not in a happy place in his life and he suffered an aneurysm which caused him to lose vision in one eye.
In the process he turned back to the practice of yoga, which helped him in making better choices, and became a part-time teacher at Charlotte’s oldest yoga studio, Charlotte Yoga.
“Yoga and art is a nice complement,” he said. “They feed my soul.”
He has since regained his eyesight and gained attention on social media for his 365-day yoga challenge. He has just started another 365 day challenge as well.
The soft-spoken Gil, who now also has a partner of one year, is very content with his life.
“I never dreamed to be rich, but to be happy,” he said, who wears as a reminder of that a tattoo in Thai on his right bicep which means “happiness.”
Most of all he keeps his focus on art, which includes several exhibits in Charlotte and New York City later this year plus his work with the schools in Texas and the other opportunities to do his “Faces of Diversity” project.
Gil is passionate about what it can do for others, because of what art did for him.
“My quote is ‘Art saved my life,’” Gil said.
— Photo Credit: All images compliments of Juan Zambrano